Rep. Jon Burns, R-Newington, sponsored the bill along with other legislators whose districts also include the Ogeechee River, the site of the state’s largest fish kill. The Ogeechee incident, where drought combined with a factory’s illegal discharge of chemicals, led to 38,000 fish dying in 2011.
Local officials expressed frustration at not being informed of the incident or the state’s response to it. Environmentalists said the state Environmental Protection Division was slow to respond due to staff reductions in the wake of repeated budget cuts.
Similar complaints resulted from pollution-triggered fish kills in Clarke, Burke and Wilkinson counties over the last two years.
“In all four of these, EPD was unable to make a timely response because they only had four, part-time people,” said Neill Herring, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club.
Burns said Monday that even though he represents residents along the Ogeechee, his concern is statewide so that local officials will be better informed.
“There’s not much communication going on with EPD, not enough communication,” he said. “This will be an effort to require some of that communication.”
The bill won’t come up with any additional funding for EPD, but it will give it a legal responsibility for responding to chemical spills. That responsibility shields it from further budget cuts that target activities beyond what is legally required.
Besides, with greater cooperation, the state may be able to improve its overall response by coordinating with local fire, health and rescue teams instead of having to expend funds to do all of the work. Since the local responders will be able to arrive first and have greater local knowledge, they should be included in EPD’s overall response, according to Burns, who happens to chair the House Fish, Game & Parks Committee.
Issues like which state or local agency would make emergency declarations and decide to close a waterway to certain activities like fishing, boating or swimming would be hashed out during consideration of the bill, according to Burns.
“That will be part of the discussion,” he said.
Although Burns introduced the bill too late to pass both the House and Senate in the nine remaining days of the current legislative session, he expects to the House Natural Resources Committee will conduct a hearing on it in coming days.